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Message in a Bottle

Last week I returned from 8 days in Las Vegas. I was there to attend HRevolution, and a friend’s wedding. If some know-it-all ever tells you that 8 days is a long time to spend in Vegas…well, they’re a wise and knowledgeable individual, so ask them for investment advice.

Although it was long, my trip was a tremendous time during which I met brilliant and funny HR folks from all over the world, consumed (too much) excellent food and drink, and celebrated with dear friends. It was great, and I learned a lot, much of which is applicable to HR.

At HRevolution, I attended a session delivered by Lois Melbourne called “Explore the Passion”, which ended with roundtable comments from participants sharing what they would like to do more of in their work as HR professionals. My answer was “Write…outside of a form.” On reflection, I realized that I should have added “and e-mail”. That’s because post-conference it occurred to me that every HR job I’ve ever had has actually involved an enormous amount of writing- albeit to answer employee and manager questions, send reminders, issue warnings, “follow up”, “follow up” some more, and answer some more questions (sometimes from the same people), even though we told everyone about this at the last staff meeting! Sigh…I’ve always been willing to take my share of responsibility for this cycle, but I actually think the problem is much bigger: I think HR as a profession kinda sucks at Communications.

“It’s On the Intranet…”

Whether it is rolling out a new program, communicating about organizational change, or even promoting our own value to our companies, it is my experience that we often fall a little (or a lot) short. One symptom of this problem is the significant number of questions that most HR departments receive from employees and managers every week that could be answered with the following sentence:

“It’s on the intranet”

Of course you don’t respond this way. Instead you painstakingly type a response, or maybe copy and paste the relevant information into an e-mail, possibly with some mild gritting of teeth, or even an eye roll or two. Or perhaps you’ve gone on vacation at some point and come back to 40 or 400 such e-mails, asking about how to submit a benefits claim, or where the form is for vacation requests, or how to input their goals into the HR software system. As you provide belated responses to each of these queries, their senders cheerfully inform you that they managed to figure it out for themselves: “It turns out that it’s on the intranet!” You consider, yet again, how peaceful it must be to be a dog walker.

I Already Told You So…

It occurs to me that as HR professionals, we should consider what percentage of our time each week is spent answering these types of questions. 5%? 10%? More? That is, how many questions do you get every day that concern programs or processes that you or your team has built?

Here’s the part you’re not going to like (sorry). No matter what your answer was, the fact is this: It’s all our fault.  Really. I know, I know; those people should listen better, and they should read their e-mails, and the newsletter, and the intranet. But they don’t, and they’re probably not going to start.

In my experience, HR suffers from a sort of generalized ‘false consensus effect’ in which we assume our staff meeting announcement and follow-up email will produce a reasonable level of compliance with the stated advice/instructions, because the intelligent people we work with should “get” that we’re only asking for actions that they should already be taking anyway andhowcantheynotknowthat (sheesh). I would argue that not only is this level of communication inadequate, but that it is a fundamentally flawed approach to ensuring that our colleagues buy in to, or cooperate with, whatever it is that we’re asking for this week.

Viva the Vegas

How can we get better? I’m glad you asked. We need to take a lesson from Las Vegas, Nevada. In Vegas, you will find some of the most direct and unambiguous communication in the universe.  If you dislike nuance, well my friend, book your ticket for 8 days of unflinching, brash data coming at you 24/7.

BellagioMon Ami Gabi

During my time in Vegas, I became preoccupied with what a terrible, meaningless death it would be to get hit by one of the many trucks driving around Vegas day and night, displaying large billboards advertising hookers (“Canadian Tourist Dies After Hit and Run Involving Truck of Hookers”). If after 2 hours in Vegas you don’t know that the grimy underside of sexual exploitation is a mere phone-call away, you are likely unconscious, and may need your stomach pumped. Similarly, at an excellent French restaurant we dined at mid-week, I was relieved to be informed by a sign at the hostess desk that swimwear was not acceptable attire for dinner, clearing up any lingering questions about the dress code. This is the kind of communication HR needs to strive for- bold, confident, and leaving nothing to the imagination.

Yes, I am kidding…sort of, but the lesson is a serious one. I have been part of so many HR teams that pour blood, sweat and tears into program development and project planning, only to have the genuine value they have created go unnoticed by their organization’s leaders and colleagues due to an inadequate or misguided communications strategy. I think that as a profession we can do better. Perhaps we all need a trip to Vegas for research…?

Creative commons photo courtesy of on Flickr

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sounds like you enjoyed the trip… I loved the Improv session at hr evolution. See you next year!

    October 22, 2013
  2. Great article/post. I love your sense of humor. Thanks for sharing.

    Regards, Rhonda

    October 22, 2013
  3. This is an absolutely terrific post.

    I have to say, the mention of the swimwear as dinnertime-wear ban made me laugh. And it also put me in mind of your earlier post on tube tops, manatees and sundry matters.

    Do you think there’s a perfect balance that HR can achieve, between the sort of brutally unambiguous communications seen in Vegas and the over-prescriptive approach described in your earlier post?

    If such a balance is indeed possible, here’s hoping it brings a prompt end to any and all “kinda suck”-ful HR communications.

    Outstanding work, Jane.

    October 22, 2013
  4. Always enjoy your posts Jane!

    October 23, 2013
  5. “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw.

    Sometimes we confuse a a failure to communicate with a failure to influence and persuade. These are very different things and require different strategies. No matter what result we’re looking for, we always “communicate” something. Many times, the message that comes across has little to do with our content, and lots to do with how well our audience believes we understand and appreciate the demands and challenges they face – for instance, the 400 emails in their in box.

    While it is more effective to collaborate and create an outcome that is meaningful to the staff, it’s also a whole lot more work, and requires skills or experience that many practitioners (and business people) lack. One major stumbling block is the mistaken belief that HR is an administrative function. It most certainly is not. HR is an influencing and need-meeting function. It certainly requires high level administrative acumen and tools, but those are the bare cost of entry; not differentiating qualifications that guarantee success. If we want to be perceived as business partners by our leaders and ‘useful’ by our constituents, we need to do what it takes, not what’s expected.

    October 28, 2013
  6. While I totally hear you that clarity and repetition in communication is lacking from HR departments (and I agree), I would boldly suggest that this is issue is the single largest derailer (?) of new programs in any department, at any company.

    Enjoyable read as always, Jane. Thanks!

    October 28, 2013
  7. Josh #

    I’m still stuck at the 8 days in vegas part…..

    November 10, 2013

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